Municipal Government

Spotlight on American Labor History

April 24, 2017
By Bill Hohlfeld

Bill Hohlfeld

Whose Work Do We Value?

During last night’s broadcast, we focused our spotlight on the commemoration of Workers Memorial Day, which will take place again this year on April 28th. The simple message of the ceremonies that take place on that day is that no one should have to die in the attempt to make a living. Yet, often they do.

While that is particularly true in the construction industry, it still remains a serious issue for people in other occupations as well. The numbers are indeed grim. Currently, over 4500 people a year die on the job in America. That’s approximately 12 people per day who don’t make it home because their life ended before their shift did. I’m sure most of us agree that although it is a drastically reduced number from pre OSHA days when we lost 38 workers per day, it is still an unacceptable level of workplace fatality.

I would linger for a moment on the question of what we, as a people, find acceptable. If we look at OSHA statistics from 2015, (the latest available), we see a year that contained over 4800 worker deaths. I think it’s worthwhile to take a look at what kind of work was being done when those unfortunate deaths occurred. Mark Twain’s witticism aside, (“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”) numbers don’t really lie; they convey both text and subtext.

What the numbers from 2015 tell us is that a staggering 1,301 of the workers who met their death were in the transportation industry. Another 924 members of the American workforce who had their lives ended prematurely were, not surprisingly, part of the construction industry. In addition, 392 people from the maintenance and repair sector, as well as 284 people from farming, fishing and forestry occupations were victims of on-site deaths.

Compare those numbers to totals of 8 people in marketing or 5 people in accounting that died on the job that same year. The contrast is stark indeed. No one is suggesting that those fatalities from the marketing or accounting sector are not as tragic. That’s just the point. All work related deaths are tragic.  None are acceptable. But would we simply shrug if if 900 marketing managers died? Would we think nothing was strange about 1300 accountants needing to be replaced in the same year? I think not. Why then is there no sense of outrage over the the deaths of so many who feed us, build our schools, highways and housing, repair the massive machinery that keep the gears of our economy grinding, and move millions of us to our businesses and back every day? Whose work, and whose life’s work do we value?

April 24, 2017

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